Syrian troops stormed a restive neighborhood in Homs on Monday, kicking in doors and making house-to-house arrests in an area that has spiraled out of government control after nearly a week of deadly assaults, activists said.
The regime is scrambling to clear out Baba Amr, a major center of resistance and reprisal, as Damascus faces potential fallout from the Arab League for defying a peace plan brokered by the 22-nation body with persistent violence. According to activists, more than 110 people have been reported killed in the past week in Homs, Syria's third-largest city.
The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday. It was not clear what action the league would take if the bloodshed continues, although it could isolate Syria by suspending or freezing its membership. That would be a major symbolic blow to a nation that prides itself on being a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
Despite increasing international pressure, President Bashar Assad still has a firm grip on power and has shown no signs of moving to stop the crackdown on a nearly 8-month-old uprising against his regime. He blames the bloodshed on "armed gangs" and extremists acting out a foreign agenda to destabilize the regime, portraying himself as the lone force who can ward off the radicalism and sectarianism that have bedeviled neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon.
The government reportedly has been facing strong resistance from army defectors who have taken refuge in the Baba Amr and surrounding areas in Homs, which has a population of some 800,000 and is some 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the capital, Damascus.
A key opposition group, the Syrian National Council, declared the city a "disaster area" on Monday and appealed for international intervention to protect civilians and for sending Arab and international observers to oversee the situation on the ground.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the "vast majority" of Syrians want a peaceful resolution without foreign interference.
The violence comes despite claims by Syria that it is complying with an Arab League-sponsored plan to end the crackdown.
Under the plan, Syria's government agreed to pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow journalists and rights groups into the country. But the violence has continued unabated, prompting Qatar's prime minister to call for an emergency meeting Saturday to discuss Damascus' failure to abide by its commitments.
Activists and Homs residents say government forces have fired live ammunition to break up unarmed protests and used tank guns and other heavy weapons in residential areas in recent days. At least two people were killed in the city and the surrounding province on Monday, pushing the death toll from the past 24 hours to at least 18, they said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's dead included an 8-year-old girl who died in random gunfire from a security checkpoint in the Houla district.
The latest siege also was preventing medical supplies and food from getting into Homs, the SNC said.
"The Syrian regime is imposing a brutal siege on the brave city of Homs, aiming to break the will of its residents who have dared to reject the regime's authority," the SNC said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear whether the government had retaken control in Homs. Activists reached by telephone said many people had fled before the raids while others were too scared to leave their homes.
"There is a major campaign of arrests going on in some of the toughest neighborhoods of the district," an activist in Homs told The Associated Press by telephone. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his personal safety.
The government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online and details gathered by activist groups.
The conflict is strangling the country. The U.N. estimates some 3,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since mid-March, and international sanctions are eroding the economy.
Syria's ambassador to Egypt and the Arab League, Youssef Ahmed, said he was "astonished" by comments made earlier this week by Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, in which he warned that the failure of the Arab plan would have disastrous consequences.
"The secretary general should not be taking sides against the Syrian government, especially since we have been providing information that shows the attacks perpetrated by armed terrorist groups against civilian and security forces," Ahmed told Syrian TV.
He said Syria has taken significant steps toward implementing the plan by offering an amnesty for those who readily give up their weapons and releasing more than 500 prisoners.
When asked about the amnesty last week in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "I wouldn't advise anybody to turn themselves in to regime authorities at the moment."
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem seized on the comments Monday, saying the U.S. was encouraging "armed groups to continue their criminal operations against the (Syrian) people and the state."
Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.